House approves antispam bill

WASHINGTON (11/24/2003) - Lawmakers are one step closer to enacting the first nationwide antispam law. The House of Representatives on Saturday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would fine spammers who violate restrictions on unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act was approved by a vote of 392-5. The move follows the U.S. Senate's approval of its version of the CAN-SPAM Act in October with a 97-0 vote.

The two bills need to be merged into joint legislation before it is presented to the U.S. president for his approval. It is expected that the Senate will accept the House's wording of the bill and that President George Bush will sign the bill into law before the end of the year.

Key Features

The House bill would require commercial e-mail senders to provide opt-out mechanisms and their postal address, and to label their messages as advertisement or solicitation. Senders would be required to comply with opt-out requests within 10 days, although the bill gives the U.S. Federal Trade Commission authority to extend the compliance period.

Under the bill, spammers also would be prohibited from harvesting e-mail addresses from Web sites and launching automated dictionary spam attacks.

Spammers who use other people's e-mail accounts or computers to send spam would face fines and imprisonment up to five years. The bill would also allow the FTC, state Attorneys General, and ISPs to go after spammers for civil damages of up to US$250 per e-mail, or fines up to $6 million.

Under the bill, the FTC would also have authority to create a "Do-Not-Spam" registry similar to the wildly popular "Do-Not-Call" registry designed to block unwanted telemarketing calls.

If the bill becomes law, it would override antispam laws adopted by more than half the states in the country, including California. The California law, which is due to take effect January 1, is one of the toughest antispam laws in the country, requiring consumers to "opt in" before mass marketers can send e-mail solicitations.

"Spam is overloading personal accounts and networks, and it's getting worse everyday," says Representative Gene Green (D-Texas), a co-sponsor of the bill. "This bill fights back against spammers."

Mixed Reaction

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft Corp., praised the House for its approval of the bill, calling the legislation a critical component in the broader fight against spam.

"Microsoft particularly supports the strong enforcement provisions, and the ban on falsifying the origin of e-mail solicitations and illegally obtaining lists of e-mail addresses, both of which will help Internet service providers prosecute spammers," Gates wrote in an article for The Washington Post newspaper, which was also released as a statement by the Redmond, Washington, software company.

In contrast, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), condemned the bill as being weak against marketers. The group also criticized the bill for overriding the tougher "opt-in" legislation passed by various states, including California. The "opt-out" method touted by the CAN-SPAM Act puts the onus on individual users to let companies know that they do not wish to receive spam.

The CAUCE also criticized the CAN-SPAM Act for limiting enforcement "to overworked regulatory and law enforcement agencies, rather than giving consumers legal tools with which to protect their own inboxes."

Cracking Down

The House bill goes further in cracking down spammers than the Senate version. It would:

- Increase the damage cap from $1 million to $6 million.

- Prohibit commercial e-mail senders from selling or exchanging consumers' e-mail addresses once they have opted out.

- Ban e-mail from all of a company's affiliates once a recipient has opted out. This effectively closes a loophole in the Senate bill that makes no provisions for corporate affiliates.

- Provide the FCC with authority to preempt wireless spam, which is already inundating wireless users in Asia and Europe. Japanese telecommunications giant NTT DoCoMo processes 800 million wireless spam messages daily, says Representative Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), the ranking member of the telecom and Internet subcommittee.

- More than half of the 30 billion e-mails exchanged daily is spam, according to a study released in October by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Costs to American businesses have been estimated at $10 billion per year, due to expenses for antispam equipment and lost productivity.

Chang writes for the Medill News Service. Rohde is a London-based correspondent for the IDG News Service.

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